Photos by: Aia Dakdouk
An informal football club has been playing together for 37 years.
Twice a week – through weddings, funerals, graduations, war and invasions, 25 or so men, ranging in age from 40 to 68, gather on a field in Tyre to play football. Most are from Tyre or nearby – Ain Baal, Der Kanoun, Ras al Ain and Borj Shamali.
Nazih el Zein, the oldest at 68, has played football in Tyre since he was 10. The youngest, Samer Bitar, 40, joined in his mid-thirties. “He is very young compared to the rest of us,” said el Zein.
No fans watch. No prizes are won. “The Doctors,” as they call themselves, are there for the love of the game.
Back in 1981, some doctors who loved football decided to play pick-up games together. A few players who had been with Lebanon’s premier league joined them, and they’ve been playing together ever since.
Today the players come from all professions – construction, engineering, teaching, pharmacy, business – Abu Ghassan has a flower shop.
Every Wednesday and Saturday, an hour and a half before sunset, they gather for a mostly friendly match next to Tyre Elementary School. They used to play on the north side of the city, close to a residential area, “but we had to leave because the property values were falling from all the screaming!” a player joked.
They’re a cantankerous lot. It usually takes about 15 minutes to pick teams. It’s a heated debate; finally, teams are sorted. Then someone comes late and they start all over again.
“We’ve got 24 guys playing and you hear 15 talking at the same time,” said Ibrahim Mortada, 60.
“A year ago, Ahmad got so mad he parked his car on the field, mid-game. Every guy who gets mad shoots the ball out. It happens every time.
“Off the field, these are great guys. They just take it too seriously.”
“One day in 2006, an Israeli helicopter hovered over the field, recalled el Zein. “We looked up at it and just kept on playing.”
Monzer Ismail rushes straight from teaching, his uniform in the trunk of the car. El Zein once snuck out of his wife’s grandfather’s funeral to make the game.
Abu Shadi is here even though he had open-heart surgery two weeks ago. Ali Bassima had heart surgery, too. He stopped playing for six months, then came back. “The first question to the doctor was ‘Can I play?’”
At Mortada’s house, the father of four has a strict rule: dad is not available on Wednesdays or Saturdays at game time.
One day in 2006, an Israeli helicopter hovered over the field, recalled el Zein. “We looked up at it and just kept on playing.
“If my daughter marries, it better not be on a Wednesday or Saturday,” he added.
“My wife and I used to go to Beirut during the week,” said Mortada. “I’d drive back as fast as I could to catch the game. My wife decided it would be better if I didn’t go to Beirut.”
What’s the big attraction?
“We love football,” said el Zein.
“Growing up in Tyre, you either went to the sea or played football. Those were our choices.”
“It’s in our blood.”